5 Tips for Making Your D&D Dungeons Pop

As its name would imply, Dungeons and Dragons is more than a little focused on exploring and vanquishing vast and complex dungeons. Part of the creative challenge of evolving into a seasoned Dungeon Master will always be the art-form of engineering temples, lairs, caves, and caverns filled with tricks, traps, and trolls guaranteed to put your party through the ringer.

Having logged an obnoxious volume of hours playing through the Legend of Zelda series over the years, I've developed a certain fondness for challenging puzzle-themed dungeons that demand a more outside-of-the-box style of thinking in order to conquer. As a DM, it's become a treasured exercise to create my own temples, which always require that players harness the full suite of their creative aptitudes in order to skillfully navigate the Machiavellian fun-houses they so often find themselves in.

Dare you enter?
When devising a dungeon, it's easy to become fixated on filling every chamber with a new and different creature that will present a higher challenge rating. JADE's Maze of the Minotaur campaign does this unapologetically in fact. While this practice is entirely relative to preference (and should be based primarily on a party's class composition), gratuitous combat can certainly start to grow stale for a party's Support/Specialist classes like Bard, Cleric, and Rogue. If the party in your campaign is support-class heavy, try augmenting your dungeons by employing riddles and obstacles that will allow these characters to draw upon more of their less-violent abilities in order to progress.

Using the cliff-top temple complex I designed for the party in my Elementia Campaign to help illustrate, here are 5 techniques for constructing creative dungeons in your RPG campaigns that are a well-blended mixture of engagement and challenge:

The Cliff-top Temple
(Snagging blueprints online in which to design your puzzle-dungeon is a great time-saver)

1. A High-Stakes Purpose

Skyrim's gameplay can eventually become repetitive when you're just slicing through piles of Draugrs (to then solve the same animal-themed puzzle in various incarnations) as you fight your way to the top enemy in that particular cave, tomb, or ruins. The saving grace: The game's epic overarching narratives that spur some of these larger dungeon dives - and how they give players the motivational context to keep dicing through Draugrs all night long.

The party in my Elementia Campaign was fuelled by just such a narrative: The players needed to race through the cliff top temple in order to prevent a nefarious Senator from seizing control of an ancient elven weapon being excavated - and using it to further militarize and thus monopolize the cultural balance that the party was fighting to restore in the city. Having a relevant and epic reason for your party to complete a dungeon is enriching - even if you are only sending to them to a Draugr tomb to gain combat XP. With the added tension of time-sensitivity, this may well be all the motivation they'll need to dive into your dungeon head first.

Are you done?

2. Contextual Combat Encounters

At the end of the day, combat is a central part of the Dungeons and Dragons experience. Let it be said that as much as you can focus on puzzles and intrigue, eventually your party will have to fight something. There is a great deal of variety available in the kind of combat encounters a DM can throw at their players in a dungeon, but what can really take combat to the next level in-game is having a relevant reason for fighting at all.

Take for example the fact that slavery is a major problem in Jyr (the world of Elementia). When the party successfully entered the temple, the first chamber saw them met with a creature in chains that descended from the ceiling when the players triggered pressure switches on the floor. Recognizing that chains probably equaled enslavement, Cyrano applied bardic knowledge to identify the threat  - based on his prior role serving in the army (and his exposure to compendiums of enslaved species) - as well as to deduce that the creature's blood was needed to fill a chalice in order to unlock the door to the next chamber.

Even if every room in the temple faced the party with these same creatures attacking them for fear of death, fighting the beasts over and over again would be much more poignant in this instance, as slavery was something the party was actively trying to eradicate from the city. If combat encounters are given greater context, there is always room for support classes to become more engaged through the use of their specific abilities.

De-shackle from the chains of servitude.

3. Well-Integrated Puzzles

As a creative DM, few things are more enjoyable than designing dungeon puzzles that will build immersive cadence for your party - challenging players to pay attention to their surroundings to identify the key details that will solve a situation. To kick up the engagement levels, I would even recommend foreshadowing future puzzle elements within the NPC interactions taking place prior to the party even reaching the dungeon.

I tried to actively challenge the Elementia party's attention to detail in the lead up to the cliff-top temple through the use of a game I created called Elementics: This new take on the classic Tic-Tac-Toe - which Cyrano played with a member of the Merchant's Guild - required players to make a row of three by placing the correct combination of element pieces on the board (in order to produce the correct equation which engineered certain elements). I even gave them a nice little rhyme to remember the theme:

"Ashes remain from the dousing of flames; metal from air when the fire is tamed. The earth springs forth from water in flight; sand in the wind gives darkness to light."


Because the combination of the elements was to play a central role in the upcoming dungeon, I found that engaging the players like this early on was a great way to get them thinking about – and remembering – future keys that would be needed later.

This idea proved true in the temple when, as only one example, the party came upon a 20 foot deep pool with five switches at the bottom - each adorned with a different elemental symbol (minus air). This was immediately after passing a mural along the wall depicting an ocean with smoke rising from its surface. Drawing on their memory of the element combos – and attention to detail – the party swam down, pressed the fire switch to drain the pool, and grabbed a mysterious orb (with the symbol for Air on it) from the bottom. When the water switch was pressed again to refill the pool so they could get back up, the sheet of glass that had now covered the top (trapping them with a drowned fate) was overcome by simply pressing the water and plant switches on the bottom – knowing that the two elements together created air.

Challenging your players to keep track of the details can make for some entertaining DM-ing in a dungeon. A puzzle or trap requiring a Druid's affluence with nature, or a Theif's ability to steal can also be great examples of ways to entice the abilities of the classes composing your party. Even the chained beast from the previous point could have been bypassed if the party had hit the pressure switches in the order 2, 3, 1 (A sequence they deciphered from hieroglyphs in the chamber before the fight). Unfortunately, you can't win them all - especially when puzzles are well-integrated.

Ugh..I'd like to buy a vowel.

4. Incorporate the Elements

Now this point may seem redundant due to my use of an element-themed temple to illustrate here, but this in no way has to be the overarching theme of your dungeon in order to still make creative use of the elements. You can always incorporate fire, water, ice, wind, and earth into your puzzles to provide an extra layer of vibrant realism. There's good reason why we remember the Water Temple from Ocarina of Time being so maddening the first run through: While yes, it is a water-themed elemental temple, the ingenious conceptual uses of water levels needing to be raised and lowered at just the right time - to open passages and uncover keys – can easily inspire similar hair-pulling conditions in the temples that you create.

Lest we forget...
Unleashing element-themed monsters is also a great way to keep your players on their toes. When the Elementia party entered a room in the temple covered in foliage, branches, and plants they plowed forward and found themselves instantly ensnared by hidden Assassin Vines! Luckily, they were able to solve the puzzle in the room by exposing a light source to shine on the vines and cause them to retreat, but the old adage remains painfully true: “Only fools rush in.”

Dont let this be you.

5. Continuity

The very best dungeons have beginnings, middles, and ends that influence, affect, and play off each other. Stone Tower Temple from Majora's Mask mercilessly requires players to flip the entire dungeon upside down multiple times in order to trigger switches, solve previously-setup puzzles, and access previously-unreachable places essential to progression. In short, what you do in one area critically affects the next.

Continuity is perhaps the most influential facet I kept in mind when designing the Elementia temple: Progression through the dungeon required the party to collect numerous orbs, each of a different element type (Earth, Fire, Water, Sand, Air, and Metal). These orbs were obtained through solving various elemental puzzles in chambers throughout the complex - to be used as keys to unlock barriers, uncover passages, and even activate a flying sailing barge to navigate a chamber filling rapidly with quicksand. The challenge was for the party to remember the elemental combinations learned from Elementics, and look out for the clues within the hieroglyphs on the walls - denoting which orb could be useful in solving a particular puzzle.

Andrew made some dope elemental orbs out of airsoft pellets and push pins!

I tried to push my players to embrace continuity through more challenging riddles as well: Having previously inserted the fire orb into a dragon-shaped pedestal and altering the layout of the temple (opening up the floor in the central chamber and unleashing a giant rock worm from the sands below), the party encountered a mural on a wall blocking their way forward. The mural depicted an elven sorcerer battling a giant rock worm by shooting cold spells at it.

Well, the party was able to remember that the elves in this world were known to be a non-magical race, so the fact that the elf in the mural was using magic was suspicious in itself. Touching the elf's hands at the point the spells were emanating from caused a little indent to appear just big enough for an orb to fit, and I think you can figure out what they did next to open the wall. When the party eventually battled the rock worm as the temple's boss, they knew to coat their weaponry with cold blue liquid from a vile they had found earlier on. Leaving forward-thinking clues for your players in all areas of your dungeon – and even outside of it – is a fantastic way to promote your puzzles and ensure that everyone keeps their attention fixated on your game.

The way forward is open.
So those are some techniques I use to really make my D&D Dungeons pop. First, I up the stakes as a motivation to complete the crawl - ensuring that most of the temple's combat encounters are relevant and related to this context. I think about what sort of puzzles and traps I want in the dungeon - taking the time to design them in vivid detail - and I incorporate the elements (Fire, water, earth, etc) wherever I feel they will be most enriching to the dungeon's overall flow. Finally, I establish continuity by providing clues in one room that will solve the puzzles in others later on.

How do you bring your RPG dungeons to life?

Written by: Jeff Clive

Image Sources:  https://conceptartempire.com

5 Tips for Making Your D&D Dungeons Pop 5 Tips for Making Your D&D Dungeons Pop Reviewed by JADE Gaming on 4/24/2019 12:51:00 am Rating: 5


  1. Hey I justed wanted to check- when will the dice sets be up for sale again?

    1. They will available for sale again starting next Monday (Apr 29th 2019). We are just going through a minor reshuffling of responsibilities and getting it all worked out. Thanks for your patience!